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Method to his mellowness

Though he checked his vertebrae at the press theatre door Wednesday, The Globe's columnist writes, there is method to Michael Ignatieff's mellowness. Do you agree?

Globe and Mail Update

"The hawk turned butterfly yesterday," Lawrence Martin writes in Thursday's Globe and Mail. "In making his first major decision as opposition leader, Michael Ignatieff checked his vertebrae at the press theatre door. In failing to demand strong amendments to the Conservative budget, in requiring only periodic report cards, he left himself open to ridicule - fig-leaf stuff, Jack Layton called it - from other opposition leaders and many a critic.

"But behind scenes, Liberals were explaining - and they may be right - that there was method in his mellowness. The Iggy strategy is to give the government a lifeline until the fall or thereabouts, and then pounce. The Liberal Leader didn't want to bring things to a head now. At this juncture, Canadians don't want an election. Nor are they enthusiastic about a coalition option. Mr. Ignatieff needs time to establish himself as leader and to reorganize and refinance the party.

"During that time, the economic conditions could worsen and hunger for a new government grow.

"By putting the government on probation, as he called it, he was attempting to control the agenda, to keep the sword of Damocles at his disposal. He is hoping Canadians will see his decision as the act of a responsible opposition leader as opposed to one who is prematurely power-hungry.

"He likely would have been better served had he combined the report-card requirement with a demand for amendments on a couple of the budget's more striking shortcomings. But he didn't want to give Stephen Harper any chance to call a snap election, one that likely would favour the governing party. There was a chance, had he decided to go the coalition route and topple the government, that he could have been prime minister by next week. It must have been an immensely tantalizing thought. But the chance of the Governor-General allowing a coalition to take power as opposed to sending the country to the polls was far too uncertain a prospect.

"In announcing his decision, Mr. Ignatieff was trenchant, a welcome departure from Stéphane Dion's style. If his message wasn't strong, his delivery was potent, and it is becoming apparent that he is the best communicator the Liberals have had in the leader's seat since Pierre Trudeau."

Whether you agree or not, it's a provocative thesis and globeandmail.com is pleased that Mr. Martin will joined us online Thursday to take your questions about his column and the federal budget in general.

Your questions and Mr. Martin's answers appear at the bottom of this page.

Mr. Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist for The Globe. His column appears on Thursdays.

A best-selling author, Mr. Martin has written 10 books, including a two-volume study of Jean Chrétien and two books on Canada-U.S. relations.

He served as correspondent for The Globe in Moscow, opening the paper's bureau there in 1985 and as bureau chief in Washington and Montreal.

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Stephen Wicary, globeandmail.com: Lawrence, thanks for joining us today.  It's been a busy few days here in Ottawa, and I'm curious what you make of the odd order of yesterday's events?  Michael Ignatieff's press conference was delayed slightly, giving CTV enough time to report the NDP delcaring the coalition dead before the Liberal Leader laid out his position. 

Lawrence Martin, columnist: Stephen, there was a technical problem in the media theatre which delayed Ignatieff's press conference. The NDP has an effective public relations team. They were quick in getting their message out and Layton was effective throughout the day in condemning the Liberal decision.

Ignatieff did not say the coalition was dead. He left the door open to reviving it at a future date.

Lino Correia from Toronto writes: Mr. Martin, as a long-time subscriber of the Globe and Mail and political junkie, I enjoy reading your sage columns. So here is the question: Does the Liberal amendment to the 2009 budget truly capable of holding the Harper Government to account ? Please explain your response.

Lawrence Martin: Hi Lino, there are many ways of holding a government to account, or trying to do so, starting with the daily Question Period. Ignatieff added a new one with his report-card caper. It does put the onus on the government to respond in a more detailed way to budget implementation than is normally the case. In that respect it is good. The government will be reporting on itself however and will undoubtedly find a way of giving itself very high grades. Or, if it wants to force an election, it could ignore the Liberal Leader`s request.

Ignatieff might have been better to combine his putting them on probation strategy with a demand for budget amendments, on employment insurance for example.

Robin M writes: Dear Mr. Martin, it is disappointing that Michael Ignatieff made no suggestions for amendments to a budget that is terribly flawed and without a long term vision for Canada. He says he intends to hold the government's 'feet to the fire' and in March expects to see a report on what it has actually done.

My question is if, at that time, the Liberals are not satisfied with this report, would Mr. Ignatieff then go about defeating the government, which would put us into an election in April or May?  Or would he again give the government another 'chance' at proving they can do better?

It seems this is the path the Liberals have taken throughout the Harper government 'reign' of power and has pushed Canada's position as one of the most forward thinking nations, to the end of the rung, especially in regard to the environment.

Is this a failure of leadership?  Or smart politics by a Prime Minister whose only ambition is to change the political map in Canada and by doing so, jeopardized Canada's reputation around the world?

Lawrence Martin: Hi Robin, Ignatieff is serious about bringing the govenrment down at an appropriate time, perhaps later this year. He called it a "reckless, arrogant and shortsighted government" yesterday. But the budget did go a good distance to meeting Liberal demands and the opposition, as he said, forced them to do things they don't even believe in.

But Ignatieff is new in the job and wanted to be seen as actring responsibly by launching a dramatic power grab at this point.

You're correct in your inference that Harper has no vision, atleast not a stated one. He is a politician who exists entirely in the realm of tactics. His credibility has taken a pounding in recent months. They were so slow in seeing this big downturn coming that by December they were still forecasting years of balanced budgets. Then they turned around and brought in a budget with $64-billion in deficits. When you've been that far off the mark, how can you be credible. But they got away with it. The media was soft. There was hardly a call, despite one of the biggest flip-flops in Canadian history, for the finance minister's resignation.

Vivaldo Latoch from Ottawa writes: Mr. Martin, from your recent political writings, you seemed to support the Liberal, NDP, and Bloc poltical coalition. Can you state why you were willing to see a coalition governing the Canada? Thank you for your time and attention.

Lawrence Martin: Hi Vivaldo, what I wrote was that the coalition was a legitimate idea. In fact a coalition is far more representative in the democratic sense than one party government. The coalition parties represented roughly two-thirds of Canadian voters, the Conservatives little more than one-third.

The Harper government left itself open to the formation of a coaliton because it didn't act in the consultative fashion that is required of minority governments. It tried to govern like it had a majority or a landslide and the farcical budget update was a perfect example.

The Conservatives brought on the coalition through their own arrogance. The Governor-General saved them without giving an explanation to the public for her decision. In that sense, she was as arrogant as they were. We're no longer a colony.

J. Kenneth Yurchuk from Toronto writes: Mr. Martin, you say 'Ignatieff did not say the coalition was dead. He left the door open to reviving it at a future date.' But clearly Mr. Layton and Mr Duceppe believe it to be dead. Mr. Ignatieff is being a little naive or a lot ingenuous if he thinks that his former partners will take him back with open arms after his little fling with the PM is over, don't you think?

Lawrence Martin: J. Kenneth, I tend to doubt the coalition could be revived. But it's not out of the realm of possibility. If Jack Layton sees a way down the line where he could be join forces with the Liberals, bring down the government and become a member of a coalition cabinet, he'd gladly forget about what has happened now and jump at it. But I think Ignatieff wants to separate himself from the NDP and Bloc and move the Grits back to the centre of the spectrum. So it's unlikely a new coalition will happen, despite his words yesterday. 

Shane Mason writes: If Lawrence is right, then Ignatieff is falling into the same trap that Dion did. The more they let the government off the hook while spouting fighting words ('we are placing the government on probation, etc...'), the more he will look like a wimp. If the budget is OK, if the threat of a coalition made the Conservatives temper their budget to meet the needs of Canadians in the eyes of the Liberal caucus, then fine. Say that. Say that the opposition mobilized and got what they wanted out of Harper.

But all this tough talk makes it seem that the Liberals wanted to take out the Conservatives, but lack the stones to do it. This is what Dion did -- talked endlessly about the evils of the Conservatives, but every time a bill came forward, the Liberals passed it.  They passed up many opportunities to vote out the Conservatives, even as Harper taunted them by making every bill from defense contracts to what colour to paint the bathroom a confidence motion. It made them look weak.

If Ignatieff wants to avoid the same fate he will have to dial down the rhetoric, and stick to the message that the opposition did what it is supposed to -- prevent the government from doing stupid crap.

Stephen Wicary: Lawrence, do you agree?

Lawrence Martin: Hi Shane, you have to remember that Ignatieff has only been leader a couple of months. It would have been reckless act to move to bring down the government right away. Immediately upon becoming Liberal leader in 1958, Lester Pearson tried that against Diefenbaker and got killed in the ensuant election.

This was, in fact, a quasi-Liberal budget forced on the government and Igantieff also had to take that in consideration. You don't vote down a budget that you yourself have ordered up. You take some credit for it, which he did. Unlike Dion, he wants to be seen as setting the agenda. And he has a chance, given what's happened in the last few moths, to do that.

Andrea Percy from Lindsay, Ont., writes: We don't need more vertebrae; we've seen plenty of vertebrae recently, attached to a volatile head, and feet that never had a consistent direction. We need leadership that is predominantly non-partisan, cooperative and will solve the problems at hand with skill and dispatch.

And we also need somebody to hold Stephen Harper accountable. The coalition was very good for that. I hope Mr. Ignatieff has a political two by four in his back pocket to replace it! A quiet, thoughtful one, of course.

I think Mr. Ignatieff's thoughtful approach is a good foil for Harper's bully boy tactics. I'll take his sane style any day. He's got the better idea about how to lead.

Stephen Wicary writes: Lawrence, what do you think about Ignatieff's style of leadership compared to that of his predecessor and that of the Prime Minister?

Lawrence Martin: Hi Andrea, I think you will see the Harper government trying to be more non-partisan. As evidenced with the budget, Harper may have learned a lesson form his near-death experience after his idiotic economic update a couple of months ago. Of course there have been other times when he has appeared to be changing his attitude, only to revert back to the old autocratic style. So we'll have to see.

Ignatieff won't be as brutally partisan as some. But he will be tough and because he is so articulate and strong compared to the previous Liberal nleader, Harper will have a much more difficult time in getting away with running roughshod over the system.

Godfried Wasser writes:  Mr. Ignatieff did the only common sense he could do. Mr. Martin, you try to give it the spin of brilliance but sorry, that is not the case. Comparing Mr. Ignatieff with the 'Great Communicator' Pierre Trudeau shows an ignorance regarding Canada's East-West divide -- a lingering product of the Trudeau Liberals.

I sorely hope that Mr. Ignatieff can bring a more middle-of-the-road view to Canada, although Stephen Harper has already been dragged in that direction by political opinion and the short term panicked views of Canadians. This panicked view stoked by the Canadian media and the insistence by the Dion Liberals on 'doing something' is not very constructive.

I hope that Mr. Ignatieff brings a more mature influence to Canadian politics where long-term vision and pragmatic government are in balance. Thirteen years in power is too long and results in the corruption displayed by the Chretien Liberals and by the Alberta Tories in the final years of Klein. In four years it is time for Prime Minister Ignatieff and for a fresh political vision that is hopefully uniting rather than divisive for Canada.

Stephen Wicary: Lawrence, Godfried hits a note our colleague Gary Mason struck in his column this morning -- that of Western alienation and the tough slog the Liberals face in British Columbia and Alberta.  Do you think Ignatieff can make any gains in either of those provinces?

Lawrence Martin: Hi Godfried, no one was saying it was brilliant. Reasonable woudl be a better term.

You're correct on the point that he has to put in place a new national vision for the party.

The Liberals don't deserve to return to power solely ont he basis of the significant deficiencies of the Conservatives. They need to give the country a coherent sense of direction - something it hasn't had in a long time.

Stephen Wicary: We're about of time.  Thanks to you, Lawrence, and to all our readers who wrote in.

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